Councilmember Vaitla Files Appeal for University Mall Redevelopment Project

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – In March, the Davis Planning Commission reluctantly approved a commercial-only project at the University Mall site.  However, Councilmember Bapu Vaitla has now appealed the matter to the city council.

According to the city staff report, the council will now determine “whether or not to entertain and schedule a public hearing for a Councilmember initiated appeal.”  At this point, the council “is precluded from discussing the Planning Commission findings, or the merits of the project, or the merits of the appeal.”

The council “is constrained only to consider whether to put the appeal on a future agenda for a public hearing.”

In August 2022, after the council in 2020 had approved a large mixed-use project of the site, Brixmor submitted a new application that would replace the existing retail center with a two story, commercial-only project.

On March 20, 2023, Councilmember Vaitla “invoked his right as a councilmember and submitted an appeal of the Planning Commission decision.”

In his appeal, Councilmember Vaitla argued the “proposed project does not conform to the visions of the General Plan (Section III).”

“I do not believe that ‘development of the site and new structures will enhance the site and the neighborhood,’ as stated in the Findings,” the councilmember wrote.

Citing “Neighborhood Character,” Vaitla continued, “I do not believe that the ‘proposed architecture, site design, and landscape are suitable for the purposes of the building and the site and will enhance the character of the neighborhood and community’ or that the project ‘will be consistent with existing and anticipated surrounding development,’ as stated in the Findings.”

He added, “A single-story commercial structure oriented towards automobile access does not conform to current urban planning best practices. The current and planned developments to the west and south (on UC Davis property) are increasingly dense, and the future of neighborhood plazas in Davis will likely strongly emphasize mixed-use development.”

Third, Vaitla cited “architectural design.”  He wrote, “I do not believe that ‘the architectural design of the proposed project is compatible with the existing properties and anticipated future developments within the neighborhood in terms of such elements as height, mass, scale and proportion, in that the proposed buildings and improvements…are an appropriate design for the proposed use and consistent with nearby uses,’ as stated in the Findings.”

Whether the council will move forward to hear the appeal is another matter.

The Planning Commission was told that they were relatively constrained as to what they can do and were warned that the city could be used for a denial.

“A property owner has the right to build or improve their property, within the regulations of the local zoning code, which in this instance allows retail-only or mixed-use,” a letter from Jenny Tan, Director of Community engagement explained in March.

She continued, “City staff have been in multiple conversations with the property owner at University Mall regarding building a residential mixed-use project and to ascertain what, if any, City support would assist in bringing the housing portion of the project to fruition.”

The property owner at University Mall has consistently told the City that “they will not build mixed-use and they will pursue retail-only.”

Moreover, Tan stated, “The City does not have the authority to force the property owner at University Mall to build mixed-use apartments or housing if they are proposing development that is within the current zoning requirements and standards.”

The zoning of the property “allows retail-only use of the property with an option to include residential use, but does not mandate residential.”

She added, “There is no legal basis for the City to impose such a mandate.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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3 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    In his appeal, Councilmember Vaitla argued the “proposed project does not conform to the visions of the General Plan (Section III).”
    Citing “Neighborhood Character,” Vaitla continued, “I do not believe that the ‘proposed architecture, site design, and landscape are suitable for the purposes of the building and the site and will enhance the character of the neighborhood and community’ or that the project ‘will be consistent with existing and anticipated surrounding development,’ as stated in the Findings.”

    Third, Vaitla cited “architectural design.”  He wrote, “I do not believe that ‘the architectural design of the proposed project is compatible with the existing properties and anticipated future developments within the neighborhood in terms of such elements as height, mass, scale and proportion, in that the proposed buildings and improvements…are an appropriate design for the proposed use and consistent with nearby uses,’ as stated in the Findings.”

    Seems ironic, in that it’s usually those labeled as “NIMBYs” who area accused of attempting to impede or derail development proposals based upon these type of factors. While also being accused of making things so difficult for developers that they stay away from Davis, entirely. (Though the latter accusation never rings true at all.)

    Every day that goes by without redevelopment of this property equates to lost revenue for the city. And the “pro-growthers” have already caused a delay which has gone on for years, at this point.

    Any other city would be thrilled to have a commercial mall redeveloped in this economic environment.

    This does seem to be an “only in Davis” type of action.

    And let’s not forget that mixed-use was already APPROVED, when the council overrode the planning commission’s earlier decision. It’s the developer who doesn’t want to proceed with it.

  2. Ron Glick

    “Seems ironic, in that it’s usually those labeled as “NIMBYs” who area accused of attempting to impede or derail development proposals based upon these type of factors. While also being accused of making things so difficult for developers that they stay away from Davis, entirely.”

    I agree this adds to Davis’ reputation as a poor place to do business but its unlikely to create much more of a delay. Its not only the Nimbys but also those who demand the perfect over the good that make Davis reputation as a lousy place to do business. A friend who doesn’t live here anymore predicted that the this council would seem to be pro-growth but would make so many demands as to dissuade projects from being approved.

  3. Ron Glick

    A friend,  who is intimately familiar with Davis politics but no longer lives here, predicted that Vaitla would make so many demands on development projects that it would add to Davis’ reputation as a bad place to do business. Let’s recap how we got here.

    The owner wanted to redevelop the property as commercial only. The City told them to go big with a huge mixed use project. The owner said okay. As predictable as rain on a picnic the neighbors and the usual suspects complained. The Council was forced to take a difficult vote shortly before three members were up for re-election. The project was approved with modifications on a 3-2 vote with one yes vote retiring and the two no votes getting re-elected. The owner gave up on the giant mixed use project claiming they were unable to find partners with the ability to build the approved project and returned to the commercial only project. Now a CC member wants to take another bite at the scaled down project. This has been going on for how many years? Five years at least that I can remember, maybe six or seven. Ground has yet to be broken but most of the stores have been vacant for at least four years now.

    I hope this appeal is a short delay otherwise I fear it will prove my friend correct.

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